Comedian Hari Kondabolu isn’t known for starting beefs on Twitter, but calling out Hank Azaria for his stereotypical Apu accent prompted a meaningful dialogue around problematic accents.
Story by Rumnique Nannar.
Hari Kondabolu is a Brooklyn-based comic known for his hold-no-bars critique and laugh-out-loud observations on racism in everyday American life. He was host of “The Kondabulletin” on the late-night show, Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, when he did his first standup routine about the Apu accent. He credits the show’s host (and his friend) Bell for giving him the confidence as a staff writer to vocalize his ire. “I remember Kamau telling me, “You think it’s been done before, because you and your friends have talked about it, but America’s never heard that.” He gained major exposure from the show, which heralded him as one of the foremost and funniest comedians dealing with race in America.
Kondabolu has had a busy year with appearances on The Late Show With David Letterman, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Conan, and John Oliver’s NY Standup Show. We spoke with the very smart and funny comedian about his debut comedy album, “Waiting for 2042,” how he got into comedy, and why he doesn’t do accents anymore.
You’ve had an interesting trajectory from your human rights background to comedy. Did some of your day job bleed into your comedy when you first started out?
A little bit. When I was in college, certainly my life was changed by 9/11 and I became a politicized being, and someone who saw the world in a more complicated way than I did when I was 17 or 18. As a result, my art changed as well as my goals in life. So it kind of lead to me becoming an immigrant-rights organizer and wanting to get a masters degree in human rights at LSE [London School of Economics]. Certainly when I was organizing, comedy became really important because I was doing really hard work with folks who were dealing with deportation, being victims of hate crimes, or being fired unfairly from work. I’m trying to support people and connect them with resources by day, and at night I needed comedy as a way to survive and as a way to stay healthy. In that way, it certainly made me appreciate comedy and made me work harder at it. Being around people who were so passionate and doing incredible work in difficult circumstances, you want to write things that always kick upwards. I never wanted to hurt people who were struggling or oppressed.
You’ve talked about putting the Indian accent to rest, how did you come to that conclusion that it was a bit awkward with audiences laughing at it rather than with it?
Earlier on, I did that as a 17 or 18 year old. When you’re a young comedian, you do whatever it takes to get a laugh, regardless of what your background is culturally. I think that when you’re South Asian or if you have immigrant parents, you immediately know you have that as a tool. An impression of your parents, or an accent will work and so I did it with the goal any young comedian has of, “This is what I have to work with, and I’m going to use it.” Again, I changed as a person and evolved, as I saw the world with a much more complicated lens. I also was aware of the fact that my folks – English isn’t their first language – my father in particular can struggle with English. I think to myself, “People are laughing at this accent. An impression of an accent. Are they laughing at him when he talks? Do people do impressions of my father when he’s not in the room?” The idea that I was contributing to that in any way was upsetting and it made me not want to do that, because it wasn’t worth the laugh. Also as an artist, I don’t do a particularly good impression and secondly, it’s lazy to me. The actual content of the writing gets lost. Are people laughing at your cleverness or are people laughing at the voice?
What do you think of other comics like Russell Peters or other comics who use still use accents?
I don’t have judgement on them, it was just a choice for me. I knew what I was and I knew who I wanted to be. Certainly, I don’t get as many laughs as a lot of comics. I sacrifice laughs, because I know what I want to say and being true to who I am and getting laughs from an honest place is more important than anything else. When I think of Russell, I see Russell as a pioneering figure. He brought so many Asians to his show and to comedy. He’s the reason why around the world there are these comedy scenes, because people are inspired by him and want to perform in places where standup isn’t a huge artform. He’s a huge community comic and figure. In that context, it’s not for me but I think there is something where if you’re mum, dad, brother, you, and your grandparents can all see the same performer and find something enjoyable in him. For me, in a mainstream context, I don’t think I could do that.
“People always say I’m obsessed with race… you can’t be obsessed with race in America. There’s racist stuff that happens all the time. Saying that I’m obsessed with race and racism in America is like saying I’m obsessed with swimming when I’m drowning, you know what I mean?” – from the “Waiting for 2042” album.
How often do you shape your material based on your audience or the city you’re playing in?
There are slight changes depending on if I can incorporate something I know about the city or something that just happened there. I’ll try to do that. It’s important to try to feel connected and also for the audience to know that you’re actually present, and not just delivering something you’ve done a million times, even if you have. Ultimately that’s my goal, to be honest, both in the things I’ve written and also with the audience that’s in front of me… Sometimes I might improvise, I might chat, I might go into the audience those are just normal tools, but I’m not going to change my point of view.
I loved your special segments of ‘The Kondabulletin’ on Totally Biased, especially where you called out The Simpsons for Apu. We all talk about it within our circles, but nobody has done that in so long. How was it working on a show as edgy and diverse as that?
It was amazing! It was unique in part, because if you look around the writers room it was the most racially diverse staff you will ever have. I feel in a lot of settings you have to deal with the white judgement and feeling like a minority even when you’re talking about minority things. It was a minority-driven space. There’s such a comfort in being able to talk about what you wanted to talk about without having to deal with so much judgement. It allowed me to write a lot of pieces I don’t think I would’ve written otherwise. That Apu piece initially I didn’t want to write about it. I felt it was kind of corny and it had been done before. I’ve talked about this for years. I remember Kamau telling me, “It hasn’t been done before. You think it’s been done before, because you and your friends have talked about it, but America’s never heard that.” The idea that someone would encourage me to do that was why that show was special.
I loved your first joke on the album, “My White Chocolate Joke” which slightly touches on colourism, have you ever thought of touching on that in your material?
I did a piece about it called “Unfair Skin” for PBS. It’s hard to do in the mainstream context unless I provide the context for more people, when you’re talking about a diverse audience that’s not just desi. Some of the themes are universal, but you have to explain it out a little bit. I don’t know if I want to, but if I do I know there’s an interesting space for that. Certainly, I’ve done that video blog live in front of desi crowds and I think it’s appreciated, because it’s frustrating. It is a very bizarre thing, where despite all the other things we’re already dealing with in terms of racism, fairness, and what immigrants have to deal with – we add this on top of it. It’s just like, “Are we ever going to be free?” (laughs).
Definitely! How have you dealt with it?
It’s just so ingrained, you know? Our parents’ generation is more blunt about it, but for us I think it’s more ingrained like we make choices and say things without even thinking it. Even the certain comments people will make from my generation, like my girlfriend is half-white and half-Indian, so she’s fair…Even using the word ‘fair’ made me feel nauseous right there. She has light skin, so people will ask me, “Is your girlfriend Indian?” I’m like, “Well, she’s biracial. She’s white and she’s Indian.” And I’ve heard people say, “Ohh, that’s nice.” I think that’s the most repulsive thing. You’re treating my girlfriend, someone I love, like she’s a breed. Like I mixed the right elements together and it makes me angry. It’s like, “Woah. You’re a young South-Asian person saying this to me?” Why is this different than your parents asking me how fair she is? It’s different when it comes out of our mouths, but still a lot of the same shit is still there.
I feel in a lot of settings you have to deal with the white judgement and feeling like a minority even when you’re talking about minority things. – Hari Kondabolu
Were there any comedy albums that inspired your album?
Stewart Lee, who’s a British comic I absolutely love was a big influence. I love how Stewart plays with the format and how he has these strange callbacks. There’s such patience that he shows in his work. The album has a lot of moments that require listening. It’s not a laugh-a-minute. There’s a mention of something in the first 20 minutes and it comes back 40 minutes later. Richard Pryor was a big influence, because there are things Richard Pryor does that aren’t necessarily funny but are interesting and important. The idea that you can allow yourself that space as a comedian is definitely inspiring. There’s so many other comedians like Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, and people I’ve seen over the years. It felt like it was the end of a long journey with this material and with all the comedy I’d heard in my life.
How much of the new album was tested on your late night circuit?
When you do it for late night, you’re restricted by time, you’re restricted by audience, which is a mainstream audience. Letterman, to their credit, I gave them an alternate set that wasn’t as aggressive as the one I did and they wanted the race stuff. I was very appreciative and shocked to be honest, because generally I don’t expect that.
When you move to the “2042 & the White Minority” on the album, there’s a real outpouring from the audience. How does it feel as a performer when the audience is having such a cathartic response to the material? Is it off-putting at all?
(laughs) Thank you for that, because when I recorded it in Oakland it was off-putting. I appreciated the energy and I appreciated where all that was coming from, but at the same time I’m a standup comedian. I just wanted laughter and that’s the straightforward vision I had. What I ended up getting was something that doesn’t sound like any other comedy album I’ve ever heard – it’s a very unique-sounding record. That was not my intention, and initially I was a little horrified that this doesn’t sound like how I wanted it to sound like. Now, I look at it and it’s actually a very unique piece. I recorded during the summer of the Trayvon Martin demonstrations and Fruitvale Station had just come out. So a lot of the folks at my show were from that area, and had also possibly been there at the Trayvon demonstrations, and for them, my recording was catharsis. It’s like, “I’ve had a long month. You are here. You are talking about the things I care about and you’re being thoughtful and funny, and I appreciate you.”
You’ve expressed your dislike for Indian TV serials and Bollywood films, but I have to know, which film can you sit through and slightly tolerate?
There’s a couple out there. Sholay, of course, a classic. The songs are great. Lagaan is wonderful, and I’m a huge sports fan in general and I love cricket. So that film is basically perfect until the white lady starts singing (laughs). It’s very bizarre. It’s so uncomfortable, (sings) “I am in love.” What is this? That movie is so much fun as a buildup of a historical thing, an anti-colonialist movie, a sports movie, a thing talking about caste. It has something like 14 themes in it, and then all of a sudden there’s this weird music part that doesn’t fit… It takes almost 20-minutes to recover from how bad that song is, but I love that movie!